BLACKLASH is a strange beast. It can snowball in entirely unmerited fashion, or, in Animal Collective’s case, partially so. You could call it an artistic hangover after a career-best effort, a feverish attempt to top themselves, or even a product of too many minds at the dials. But back in 2012, Centipede Hz interrupted one of the greatest creative runs by an active band. Though it was abrasive and overlong by the standards the group had cultivated, it’s hard to argue that Animal Collective were deserving of the bandwagon effect that accompanied Centipede Hz.
So here we are, with Painting With, Animal Collective’s tenth studio album and follow-up to what you could call their first real critical dud. In many ways, it’s antithetical to what came directly before. It may be a stretch to call it a comeback album—though the three-and-a-half year layoff is a career high—but Painting With finds the band flexing its muscles, eager to prove something to itself. It’s tight, lean, and permeated by a restless, manic energy. Geologist, Avey Tare, and Panda Bear (Deakin sits this one out) are able recall their recent past without emulating it, sounding fresh and renewed and entirely like themselves. Painting With shares Merriweather Post Pavillion’s pop aptitude, the unbridled jubilation of Feels, and the odd eclecticism of Strawberry Jam.
Indeed, Animal Collective address a number of issues that plagued Centipede Hz, not the least of which was runtime. Painting With is a svelte 41 minutes; most of its tracks don’t stick around much longer than three minutes. Panda Bear has called it the band’s Ramones album. Structurally it's easy to see the comparison's merits. There is less stop-and-go, much more go. Painting With benefits greatly from pacing, beginning with the lead track and single “FloriDada”, whose melodies bounce, bob and weave and capture a childlike wonderment over the clangor of tribal drums.
This same style of overlapping harmonies elevate several of the stronger tracks on Painting With. Avey Tare and Panda Bear share singing duties almost evenly. They often serve as elemental, dueling characters, which proves a far more effective and resonant approach than “one for you, one for me.” “The Burglars” and “Vertical” in particular capture their voices as natural compliments. There’s an intrinsic accessibility to the melodies as well, which displays the bands love for classic psych pop acts like the Zombies, Beach Boys and Olivia Tremor Control. (Funny that, Animal Collective recorded Painting With in Hollywood’s EastWest Studio 3, where Brian Wilson laid down Pet Sounds exactly 50 years prior.)
With few exceptions the narrower palette allows the songs to run together, unified by their urge to get somewhere. It’s almost confrontational in its own way. The synths are watery and clear and devoid of reverb, which occasionally makes the lyrics intelligible. Sonic outliers include “Lying in the Grass”, which sounds imprecise in contrast, and the swathing vortex synths on “Natural Selection”, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Centipede Hz.
The urgency on display here is helped along greatly by the emphasis on rhythm. Nearly every track has a solid backbone. You can hear Feels throughout this album, particularly “The Purple Bottle”. The percussion on “Vertical”, one of the most collage-like pieces here, serves as nerve centre from which strange sounds emanate and peel. The kinetic “Bagels in Kiev”, which draws from electro and chillwave, is disarmingly straightforward for an Animal Collective track—“Bagels for everyone!” The synths on closer “Recycling” sway in an out of view, slingshotting into orbit around Panda Bear’s childhood recollections.
As a creative exercise Painting With is half reset button/half inventory review, a band tapping back into much of what made them great in the first place. What Painting With lacks in genuine standouts, it makes up for in consistency. Where it lacks wild-eyed adventurousness, it compensates with clarity and focus. Offerings of pure pop pleasure are offset with healthy doses of weirdness. It’s a sincere, exciting and excitable album that successfully adds by subtracting. B PLUS